Lenovo's Secure Managed Client Solution Breaks New Ground

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A creative blending of unique technologies has resulted in simplifying the administration of desktop clients.


While there has been widespread resistance in the corporate world to upgrading from Windows XP to Vista, eventually XP is going to be long of tooth, and business will move to Windows 7. The cost of that move, with the implication of having to purchase all new PC hardware to support a more resource-intensive operating system, is looming like a scene out of the TV show Fear Factor, in which contestants are forced to eat a handful of squirmy bugs in order to remain in the game.


Those implications of having to upgrade all the productivity software onboard is what IBM is counting on as it deploys Lotus Notes and Symphony on Linux and UNIX platforms. There are other companies too planning for when that move takes place, and they have various interests in how it plays out because it means a lot of new PCs will be sold in the market during that transition.


One company that has its eye on the ebb and flow of the market is Lenovo Group Ltd., the firm that bought IBM's PC-making business in 2004 for $1.25 billion. The sale was intended to free IBM to focus on higher-margin businesses, such as computer services and software, though some have since said that it had the unintended effect of closing a door into the offices of small and medium businesses. In any case, it has helped raise Lenovo's image worldwide. Recently, however, Lenovo's stock has dropped like a stone, losing 47 percent on the HK stock market in a period of only five trading days. The loss in investor confidence follows an announcement by the company that it would cut its ranks by 2,500 employees, a planned cost reduction that normally results in a jump in stock prices. The continued drop in share price is believed to be from the belief, or Lenovo's announced plans, to refocus its market from corporations to the common consumer. A plan to sell low-cost computers does not, apparently, impress investors. The irony here is that Lenovo has some highly advanced technology that could save corporations billions of dollars while improving security and control--if only they would buy into it. Unlike IBM, which spends a lot of time researching names and catchy phrases to identify what essentially is normal software and standard architecture designs, Lenovo has a very slick concept for deploying desktops called Secure Managed Client (SMC), a solution that no one seems to understand. Lenovo's SMC platform works to centralize and simplify the administration of desktop clients.


"I've had the opportunity last year to take over 600 customers through the SMC story, and only three of them got the value of iSCSI booting," says Rich Cheston, Lenovo executive director and distinguished engineer, who used to work for IBM and is an expert on improving PC manageability.


"Most of the time, it went over their heads, but three customers got excited about it." After one presentation, he says, "four guys in the back of the room jump up and yell, 'Damn, we already manage servers like that! This makes so much sense to us. We had no idea that anyone could do this on a client!' "


What the excitement was all about is that Lenovo has figured out a way to iSCSI boot a diskless device. What this accomplishes from the standpoint of PC management is that if you can run it on a normal PC, you can run it on an SMC.


What Lenovo has been working on is in the arena of what IBM calls "server-hosted desktop." As a class, Gartner calls it server-based computing. The spin on the SMC concept from Lenovo, however, is that the solution is not server-based, it's storage-based. The user's desktop experience is the same as if the operating system and applications were running on the client, but in fact, they aren't. The client machine either has no hard drive or it's been shut down. So the action must be on the server, right? Not true, says Cheston; it's on a SCSI storage area network (SAN). The solution consists of a specially configured Lenovo desktop client PC, the Lenovo SMC Storage Array built on an iSCSI SAN tuned for SMC, and the SMC software stack that includes the SMC Management Console and SMC Connection Manager.


"Ninety-five percent of customers do imaging the same way," says Cheston. They buy a system from a major vendor, wipe clean the pre-load, develop their own common operating environment image for their company, sys-prep it, ghost it, and deploy it. "Well, that image can run on SMC without modification. It's just running from the SAN because, essentially, what we did was replace the PxE [Pre-boot Execution Environment] in our system with this iSCSI initiator. The benefit is huge."


Cheston says that the total cost of ownership (TCO) per PC desktop per month for a company is around $100. He says he has met only a couple of customers in North America and Europe where the TCO is less than $80. With SMC deployed, he believes companies can achieve TCO rates of under $60 per month. The benefit of SMC is that it's simpler and it doesn't create duplicate images; it's a single desktop image, it runs on an iSCSI SAN, and the SAN can be anywhere. Since there is no data or "personality" to the PC, there is no reason ever to visit it. If it goes down, you ship a new one to the remote location and plug it in. The only caveat is that you do have to have a network connection, and if the network is down, the PC goes with it. Lenovo, however, is looking at a cached version of SMC to bridge such eventualities.


There are several very specific features to the solution that Lenovo uses that make it possible. One is an iSCSI SAN that had a lot of connections but transferred a small amount of data versus the more conventional ones that had a few connections and transfer terabytes of data. They found a provider in Intel and have been partners ever since.


"We just about gave up in our search for a SAN manufacturer when we discovered that Intel is a SAN manufacturer, and they had the perfect SAN," says Cheston. The result gave Lenovo an edge on cost, and now its solution is equal to or less than the cost of an existing desktop. The benefits come with the reduced cost of ownership, better security, easier deployment, and better control. Because the SMC solution is a fully functional Windows PC with remote storage, IT employs the traditional Windows management processes, but SMC's centralized management structure eliminates desk-side visits. Because Lenovo is providing the PCs, it can offer the complete SMC solution--including the client, storage array, and software--for the same price as or less than a traditional desktop.


The enabling development in Lenovo's SMC solution was Intel's development of its vPro technology that allowed a type 1 hypervisor to run on a client. Lenovo invested a lot into its Client Virtualization Platform, a type 1 hypervisor that runs on the client rather than the server. So far, only two solutions have been announced that use the Client Virtualization Platform, and SMC is one of them. The other is a secure e-banking solution in China. More announcements are expected from Lenovo in the future that will leverage its Client Virtualization Platform.


"With this SMC solution enabled by our hypervisor, we have already won a tremendous number of accounts away from our competition because we'll go in and match them with the cost of our desktop, but the ability of this SMC to reduce their total cost of ownership or more overcomes that cost very quickly.


"If you were to come to Raleigh [North Carolina], and you wanted to see SMC running, we'd put you at a desk and ask you which of two PCs is the one running SMC," says Cheston." But you can't tell. There's no difference."


Lenovo has included several key security features in the SMC solution that make it attractive in today's environment of increased threats. Each user's "hard drive" is stored in a secure section of the storage array. Because SMC works just like a standard Windows PC, security can be upgraded through products such as Utimaco hard-drive encryption. Lenovo also provides a set of tools that include the SMC Security Advisor, which allows the central management of security policies for SMC desktops as well as standard Windows PCs. The SMC Management Console is designed to reduce the time IT administrators spend managing PCs by allowing for centralized management of the SMC platform. With the console, an administrator can centrally and remotely manage users and their desktop images.


The bottom line, according to Lenovo and based on calculations the company has made, is that over a three-year period, a customer can deploy SMC and save up to 40 percent in overall implementation costs--including deployment and ongoing management--compared to what a standard set of desktop PCs would cost. SMC would cost a customer up to 15 percent less than alternative desktop solutions, such as streaming technologies, according to Lenovo.


With a new spin on the desktop PC market, technology that can significantly lower costs for corporations by centrally managing remote PCs, and plans for deploying unique and proprietary hypervisor technology in new and different ways, investors who have suddenly become scared of Lenovo's future may eventually wish they had ridden out the storm.